The practice of armoury developed under the feudal system which, in England, followed the Norman Conquest.
Knights decorated their shields and the surcoats which they wore over their chain mail; a practice which became all the more necessary in order to distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield, following the adoption of the full face helmet at the beginning of the 13th century.
Originally there was no centralized control over the form of such decoration but, quite quickly, the Crown assumed the right to authorise their use and to rule in case of disputes.
By the end of the 14th century, the English Kings had delegated the right to grant arms to a number of Kings of Arms (formerly known as Kings of Heralds), under the supervision of the Earl Marshal.
The Kings and Heralds were first incorporated in 1484 and henceforth they have controlled the use of arms, on behalf of the Crown. Today this body is known as the College of Arms.
The arms of the Cinque Ports, which are shown in the banner of this website, resulted from the joining of the three lions of England with three ships, symbolising the Ports’ ship service to the Crown.
This heraldic device almost certainly originated between about 1194 (when three lions passant guardant – shown right – were adopted as the arms of the English Kings) and 1305 when the Ports’ arms featured on a common seal used by the town of Dover.
It is impossible to date them precisely, but there is some evidence to suggest that they were granted by Edward I, in the final decade of the 13th century.
In heraldic terms, the blazon or description of the arms is as follows:-
‘Per pale gules and azure, three lions passant guardant or, conjoined to as many ships’ hulls or’. This translates as ‘on a shield the left half coloured red and the right blue; three lions (or leopards) walking with face turned towards the viewer and coloured gold, joined to three ships also coloured gold’.
Although the origins of the arms are fairly apparent, it is less certain whether the ships’ hulls should be coloured gold or silver: both have been depicted over the centuries, in different places.
The earliest evidence of the arms is derived from official seals, which do not show the colouring. However, much of the evidence seems to point to ships of gold.
This includes a surviving banner which was commissioned by the Confederation for the Yarmouth Herring Fair in 1632, to be ‘agreeable in every respect unto the old’. This banner was the latest in a series dating back to at least 1499 and it seems likely that the correct colouring would have been strictly followed.
Some of the evidence for silver ships is derived from descriptions of the arms as displayed by certain of the member towns during the 15th and 16th centuries. It may well be, however, that this was deliberate in order to distinguish them from those used by the Confederation collectively.
Certain of the towns went further and Hastings, for example has arms (shown left) in which the upper and lower ships’ hulls are coloured silver, but the central charge is replaced by a complete lion in gold.
Arms are granted to a particular person or body (such as the Confederation of the Cinque Ports) and not for the benefit of an area in general.
It is unlawful for anyone to use a coat of Arms which does not belong to them.
© Confederation of the Cinque Ports 2023